Between the Hallmark rom-coms, the litany of Peanuts specials, and all those films with a goofy guy who must do something to save Christmas, media becomes inundated with fluff as we enter the holiday season. Sifting through the stew can be difficult when not limited by the confines of television schedules. Before, a somewhat unknown IP would be discovered simply because it was what was on TV.
Such is the case of the oft-forgotten, Emmy-nominated TV special Olive the Other Reindeer produced by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The special first aired after an episode of Futurama in December 1999, a type of television event the shift to streaming has since buried. Instead of being just another piece in an ocean of film and TV, Olive the Other Reindeer got the space necessary to allow people to discover its silly, star-studded story. It’s the sort of well-rounded, original animated special that is hard to find now.
The special begins as many others do: in song! Olive, an anthropomorphic Jack Russell Terrier voiced by Drew Barrymore, dances and sings around her small snowy city in anticipation of Christmas. As the song plays out, we see a mixture of 3D animated objects in the background, like the buildings and cars, while the people and anthropomorphic animals appear flat. It’s quaint when compared to animation now, but Olive the Other Reindeer was a vital part of the shift in animation, rendering even its 2D-looking characters in 3D CGI software. Even now, the mixed style makes Olive stand out; it evokes a sense of ’90s nostalgia with its sometimes clunky 3D environmental design, with storybook-inspired character design helping it feel timeless. DNA Productions, who worked on the special, would go on to animate the Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius movie, with Olive the Other Reindeer as an important stepping stone for its use of burgeoning animation software.
An earnest Christmas tale, Olive the Other Reindeer keeps its focus on the whimsy — after all, its name is based on a joke: While discussing their plans for the holiday, Olive and her pet flea Fido (Peter MacNicol) hear news on the radio that Christmas may be canceled due to a reindeer injury. Santa then joins the broadcast to announce that it does not look good, but maybe they’ll make do with all of the other reindeer. All of… Olive… and so it goes from there on a quest to the North Pole.
With an array of endearing characters (including a con-artist penguin and a flightless reindeer voiced by R.E.M’s Michael Stipe) and an eclectic animation style, Olive the Other Reindeer marks itself as unique even among its Christmas special competition. And yet, Olive is perfectly self-aware of what it’s trying to be — at a moment when it seems all is lost, Olive finds a letter labeled “Deus ex machina.” This is a Christmas special, after all; the ending must be happy. Yet Olive the Other Reindeer distinguishes itself as the perfect blend of classic and (for then) modern, up there with the classic claymation specials, but with a witty, 3D-update. We still get Christmas episodes of TV, but we don’t tend to get one-off, original specials — building out totally new worlds and Christmas parables — like Olive.
Olive the Other Reindeer stopped airing on TV in 2012, and is not on any streaming service, though you can find it on YouTube. Despite this, watching Olive the Other Reindeer is a necessary holiday tradition for me every year. It is genuine, comical, and unlike the mounds of other holiday specials that exist through its distinct style and eccentric voice. The special is only about 45 minutes long but still manages to introduce a vast world of characters and subvert Christmas tropes and feel timeless in the process. Olive deserves reverence for its role in animation history and a seat at the table of the Christmas specials of yore.